LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Fallon has been crowned the next king of late-night television, but the empire he will inherit has seen better days.
“Late Night” host Fallon, who will succeed Jay Leno in “The Tonight Show” chair in 2014, is charged with trying to reenergize a franchise that has lost much of its luster as viewers flock to cable television and the Internet for entertainment.
Once an appearance on “The Tonight Show” could turn an unknown into a star overnight. Now a video on YouTube can do that.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, there was nothing else like it on TV,” said Chet Fenster, managing partner of the advertising firm MEC Entertainment. “But now there are many other places to become a star.”
When Johnny Carson retired as host of “The Tonight Show” in 1992, more than 40 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen. A few nights later, when Leno took over, about 16 million people watched.
Now, after more than 20 years on the air, Leno’s show averages just 3.5 million viewers a night. That’s good enough for first place in its time slot, but not good enough to keep NBC happy.
The plethora of late-night choices consumers have today includes David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, as well as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and Conan O’Brien, all who have loyal followings on cable. This fall, Arsenio Hall — a former challenger to Leno’s throne — will also return to late night.
While it is unlikely that the 38-year-old Fallon can reverse decades of declining ratings, NBC is hoping he will be fresher than the 62-year-old Leno. Advertisers pay a premium to reach viewers under the age of 50, and fewer of those folks are watching Leno.
“This move to Fallon will bring in the younger audiences and that’s one of the major reasons that NBC is making this change,” said Amy Sotiridy, a senior vice president at media buying firm Initiative. “The older audiences will be there for them. It’s the younger audiences that are more elusive and harder to reach.”
NBC also is banking that Fallon will be a bigger hit in social media — which could translate to higher ratings among younger demographics. For example, Kimmel’s YouTube page has drawn 500 million views. In contrast, Leno’s YouTube channel, featuring clips from his show, has drawn 17.2 million views.
“Fallon and Kimmel seem to understand social media better than Leno and Letterman,” Sotiridy said. “You see Fallon and Kimmel tweeting. They understand that their audience is not just sitting there watching TV.”
Late night is still valuable real estate. Advertisers spent close to $6 billion on it last year.
But as the late-night audience has become more fragmented, aging shows are taking a hit. According to industry consulting firm Kantar Media, advertisers spent $146.1 million buying commercials on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” That’s a drop of more than 40 percent from the $255.9 million the show got in 2007.
It’s a similar story for CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” where ad revenue fell 31 percent from $208.4 million in 2007 to $143.5 million in 2012.
Leno’s loyal fans may wonder why NBC is replacing the “Tonight Show” host when he is still on top of the ratings — especially given all the other bigger problems the network has in prime time and with its morning news show “Today.”
“This is really a dumb move,” said Peter Sealey, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and a former head of marketing at Coca-Cola. “This is one of the only time slots that NBC has that they are leading in, and they are going to remove Jay Leno?”
NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke, defending the switch, said, “We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1.”
NBC has not decided when Fallon will officially take over for Leno. It will likely happen either during or after the network’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in February, which is expected to generate big ratings, people at the network said.
As part of the transition from Leno to Fallon, “The Tonight Show” will also relocate from Burbank to Manhattan, where Fallon currently hosts “Late Night.” Lorne Michaels, the veteran producer of “Saturday Night Live” and executive producer of “Late Night,” will oversee “The Tonight Show” as well.
That move to New York will be a blow to the entertainment community here. The show employs about 150 people and scores of freelancers. The move will also give ABC’s Kimmel, which shoots in Hollywood, more clout in landing A-list guests.
This is not the first time NBC has tried to replace Jay Leno. In 2009, the network moved Conan O’Brien into “The Tonight Show” and gave Leno a 10 p.m. show. Both efforts tanked and NBC ended up moving Leno back to “The Tonight Show.” O’Brien left the network and now hosts a show on the TBS cable channel.
“Viewers are going to turn on the TV and say ‘Where’s Jay?’ and they are going to resent NBC and the new guy,” Sealey said.
NBC executives don’t believe there will be as much bad blood this time around. When Leno signed a new two-year contract last year, he indicated that it would probably be his last with the network. And he has a closer relationship with Fallon than he did with O’Brien.
NBC insiders think Fallon’s boyish enthusiasm will be a better fit for “The Tonight Show” than O’Brien’s snarkier, more cerebral style. Fallon’s show hinges on performance comedy and bits harkening back to the Carson era.
Fallon, who first rose to fame as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” where he co-anchored the sketch show’s news parody “Weekend Update,” has hosted “Late Night” since 2009. He’s also hosted the Emmy Awards and won fans for his dead-on impersonations of Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger.
“He’s more likable and more mainstream and he’ll keep more of Jay Leno’s viewers than Conan O’Brien did,” said Brad Adgate, a senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, a media buying agency.
In a statement, Leno congratulated his successor, Fallon, and added, “I hope you’re as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you’re the old guy.”